story and photos by T. Edward Nickens
Chloe parts the broomsedge like Moses, headed for a milo strip, muzzle to the ground. A bird dog with a nose full of quail is a wonder to behold: flanks quivering, breath heaving in great plumes of steam. When the setter locks up to point the covey of birds, she stops so suddenly that there are skid marks behind her paws.
“Look at that,” whistles my friend, George Dixon. North Carolina State University’s admissions director emeritus and a senior consultant to The College Board, Dixon has watched bird dogs point bobwhite quail all his life, and like me, he never tires of the sight. We both stand quietly for a moment, shotguns in hand, hesitant to break the spell of the moment.
In some respects, it’s a scene lifted from another time. Quail hunting has a storied, centuries-long tradition across much of the South and Midwest. Many people remember the days when a young hunter and a bird dog could take off after school and chase bobwhite quail across the tangled farm fields of the mid-20th century. Quail were plentiful, and so, too, were places to hunt them.
Thankfully, despite years of headlines about the alarming decline in wild quail populations, a growing interest in bird hunting is supporting a growing number of commercial quail hunting preserves operating across the country. On these managed properties, pen-raised birds are released to support finely tuned hunting operations that often include world-class accommodations, gourmet dining, and managed shooting grounds that harken back to the glory days of golden sun in the longleaf pines. It’s a scene that’s attracting plenty of hunters, including a growing number of business clients who treat customers and colleagues to a day of quail hunting the same way many others put together a links foursome for a day on a golf course.
The camaraderie is unbeatable. The scenery is often unforgettable. And the shooting can be fast paced. “Steady, girl, steady,” our hunting guide calls to Chloe as he unsnaps the leash on a flushing English cocker. Dixon and I step quickly to the bird dog, shotgun muzzles at the ready. When the quail covey flushes, a dozen bobwhites burst from the tangled turkey oaks and partridge pea in front of the dog with the sound of an old car motor roaring to life. Dixon shoulders his shotgun and pulls the trigger before I can get a bead on my bird, but I’m not far behind. Soon, feathers float in the crisp winter air. Dixon and I exchange handshakes and big grins. Then we move deeper into the piney woods. Somewhere ahead, Chloe is working her magic again.
Quail hunting has long fostered an intersection between the sporting and business worlds. In the famous Red Hills shooting grounds between Tallahassee, Florida, and Thomasville, Georgia, wealthy industrialists from the North snapped up huge parcels as southern land prices collapsed after the Civil War. Fueled by a growing interest in bird hunting with pointing dogs, the trickle of Yankees swelled into a flood. Today, some 300,000 acres of prime quail land are still owned by titans of industry. In North Carolina, scores of quail plantations covered tens of thousands of acres. Frank Fleer, inventor of bubble gum, owned a massive quail plantation. J.P. Morgan built a sprawling lodge in the region with as many as 26,000 acres of leased ground. His friends shot 10,000 wild quail a year — a feat made easier with mule-drawn carts for both men and dogs. Stockbroker William Ziegler put together a 20,000-acre spread. There were racetracks, polo fields, golf courses, and trap shooting. In an average day of hunting, gunners expected to put up 18 to 40 wild coveys. William Gould Brokaw, grandson of the robber baron Jay Gould, ran a 30,000-acre quail spread in the area.
Hunting birds on a managed quail plantation today might not involve polo or horse racing, but it’s still a congenial sport. Forget 4 a.m. wake-up calls and tough slogs to a muddy duck blind. On most quail hunting plantations, the hunts only commence after a serious hunt breakfast. Guests might walk behind the dog, or follow in utility terrain vehicles until a dog goes on point. Quail hunting is an inherently social activity, so there’s plenty of time for conversation before, during, and after the hunt, when most plantations put on impressive meals for boot-sore hunters — all of which makes a visit to a quail plantation a perfect scene for business gatherings, be it a one-on-one afternoon with a treasured client or a full weekend designed to accommodate a corporate meeting.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in the number of people who come to shoot as part of a business outing,” says Dan O’Conner, general manager of the 1,100-acre George Hi Plantation, an Orvis-endorsed lodge in the historic quail country of North Carolina. “Quail hunting is a relaxed setting with an atmosphere that suggests that you are getting away from it all. There is rarely a feeling of being rushed, and that’s certainly conducive to meaningful conversations.”
Not to mention the gorgeous surroundings. Shooting preserves around the country showcase some of the finest landscapes in America. At Colorado’s Kessler Canyon, I’ve followed rangy pointers through mesquite flats where ribbons of golden aspen coursed through deep valley floors. In Missouri, rolling plains of native prairie grasses hid coveys of quail. And in Florida, vast forests of longleaf pine created a vernal overhead canopy as English setters vaulted through wiregrass meadows that stretched as far as I could see.
And everywhere, the hunt is a pageant. That’s the beauty of bird hunting: this is an ever-changing, theatrical performance. There’s a classical choreography to a quail hunt, with the dogs moving first across the grassland stage, followed by the hunters. There is something quite dramatic about a white bird dog turned to stone along a field edge, and the percussive explosion of a quail covey bursting from a thicket. The players know their places. Everyone follows the rules.
Mind your manners. Don’t walk in front of your companions. And let others go first.
Sometimes, at least.
Late in the day, on the afternoon that Chloe is working so hard to make unforgettable, my buddy George has dropped back behind me, moving through Indian grass and big bluestem to take up a position to the left of the dogs.
“I want you to notice,” he announces, “that I’m switching sides.”
I grin. The last five bird rises have been to my right, where George worked that flank of a flushing English cocker. Five flushes and I haven’t had a shot while, George put on an impressive run of downed birds.
I’ll give him credit for good intentions, but these bobwhite quail are having none of it. Not 60 seconds later, Chloe goes rigid again. One moment she’s sailing through waist-high grasses, tacking the wind like a schooner. The next moment she’s channeling her inner Michelangelo, solid as a sculpture, pointing birds.
In front of George. Again.
The little English cocker, Ranger, has to practically dig the birds out of a tangled gnarl of maple and sweetgum, but off they go, rocketing through the pines at 10 o’clock to my gun. George drops a single quail and then holds his fire.
“I’m trying to be a gentleman about this,” he laughs, “but the birds aren’t helping!”